Everyone wants to be a hero. At some point or another, you’ve probably had the daydream about thwarting some evil plot that saves millions of lives or being someone’s knight in shining armor, protecting them from a sinister villain. As grandiose as they all may be, it always has a happy ending with praise and celebration. It may seem like the hero’s life is one of luxury and ease but there are still pitfalls to the lifestyle that are not often discussed.
In continuation of the 2018 Chinese Film Festival, guest speaker Professor Li-ling Hsiao, Associate Chair and Director of Undergraduate Studies in the Department of Asian Studies at UNC-Chapel Hill took the time to delve into the price of being a hero in Chinese Kung Fu films. Approximately 90 people, including students, faculty and visitors, attended the event.
Hsiao used masterpieces of Kung Fu cinema and connected them with the classic novels that inspired the prototype of the quintessential Kung Fu hero. The films selected for the event come from the recently updated instructional Chinese film collection at the Jackson Library.
Hsiao began by introducing us to the first iterations of what would become the run-of-the-mill Kung Fu protagonist. The first example was “The Romance of Three Kingdoms,” a historical Chinese novel published back in the 14th Century by Luo Guanzhong. From this novel, the character Lord Guan became the ideal hero in Chinese culture. He had all the traits a Kung Fu master is expected to have – loyalty, bravery and benevolence towards everyone, even his enemy. He also demonstrated calm in the face of great pain. “He sat silent, while the doctor scraped poison from his bone,” Hsiao said. Lord Guan was a bad*ss; who wouldn’t want to emulate him?
The other novel, “Outlaws of the Marsh,” by Shi Nai’an, also inspired the future of Kung Fu films. “Outlaws of the Marsh” is about Wu Song, a character who embodies some of the more troubling aspects of a Kung Fu hero. Wu Song began as a street urchin, who killed a tiger while drunk one night and is eventually appointed bailiff by the town. He uses his power for personal justice then turns himself in and gets sentenced to exile. In his exile, he finds out he is being framed for other crimes, so he takes revenge. “He goes on a killing spree,” Hsiao said. “Killing innocent maids and children.” At this point, he had lost his moral integrity and Kung Fu powers. Wu Song then stumbles upon a dog and drunkenly challenges it only to end up falling in the mud.
These two novels set the tone for what every Kung Fu hero would come to be represented as. Lord Guan showed the ideal hero, and Wu Song showed the ethics behind having those abilities. Both place an importance on devotion and righteousness which would become the ethos of the Kung Fu hero. Hsiao then began to tie these ideas shown in the classic novels with some of the best Kung Fu films in the past two decades.
“Hero,” is directed by Zhang Yimou, and stars Jet Li, who plays the character Nameless. The movie is about Nameless, an orphan-turned-guard who is summoned by the King of Qin to tell the story of how he killed three of the land’s most feared assassins. In this film, each of the characters go through one of the defining aspects of a Kung Fu hero – sacrifice for the greater good. Nameless is willing to sacrifice his life, the character Broken Sword sacrifices the trust of his love and King of Qin sacrifices his reputation as a good king, being seen by the people as a tyrannical dictator. All of these sacrifices are made to bring peace to the world. As the saying goes: no good deed goes unpunished.
“Ashes of Time,” directed by Wong Kar-wai, is about a hitman who isolates himself to a desert after his heart is broken. This film is different from “Hero” because it is less polished. The Kung Fu in this world is bloody, truer to an actual fight. There is no defined hero in this film, unlike most Kung Fu movies, which blurs the line between the typical Kung Fu hero.
The one thing that aligns “Ashes of Time” with every Kung Fu movie and novel out there is alienation. The film takes place in the desert and every character is isolated from their true love. In “Hero,” Nameless is isolated from his parents, and King of Qin is alone without anyone he can talk to. Broken Sword and his true love will never be able to be with each other. In the end, every Kung Fu hero ends up alienated from something that means the most to them – that is the price they pay.
If you missed this guest speaker event, a follow up to the Chinese Film Festival is a Tai Chi workshop presented by Master Wu on April 6 in the Curry Auditorium, room 225, from 2:30 – 4 p.m.